After declaring victory shortly after 10 p.m., McDuffie said District residents can look forward to “a new, fresh, independent, honest broker on the council.”
“It’s a mandate — people want ethical, honest leadership,” said McDuffie, 36, a onetime letter carrier who became a Justice Department attorney. “They want someone who is going to represent everyone in the ward.”
The contest, viewed as a breakthrough for a new generation of young District political leadership, became a referendum on who could best lead a rapidly changing ward trying to balance its middle-class roots with an influx of new residents.
For all but eight of the past 25 years, the politically active ward had been represented by Thomas or his father, Harry Thomas Sr., a political patriarch who died in 1999.
The son, once viewed as a rising star in District politics, was forced to step down in January after admitting that he stole more than $350,000 from the city. Early this month, a federal judge sentenced Thomas to 38 months in prison.
The scandal weighed heavily on the minds of voters, who said they were eager to move past what they consider an embarrassing mark for the ward.
“I’m trying to make more of an effort to be involved and know what’s going on,” Marybeth Grannis, 38, a nurse, said after she cast her ballot for McDuffie at Dunbar High School, in Truxton Circle in Northwest Washington.
Nine Democrats, one Republican and one independent, all African Americans, appeared on Tuesday’s ballot, but the race largely came down to McDuffie, Delano Hunter and Frank Wilds. Hunter trailed McDuffie with 20 percent of the vote. Wilds was third with 15 percent.
Ward 5 includes much of Northeast, including middle-class neighborhoods such as Michigan Park, Lamond-Riggs, Brookland and Brentwood, and part of the increasingly pricey U Street corridor, including Eckington. The ward is predominantly African American, although its white population has doubled in recent years to 16 percent.
During his campaign, McDuffie quickly cobbled together a broad coalition of progressives, environmentalists, union leaders and gay rights activists, among others.
McDuffie racked up overwhelming margins in several Ward 5 neighborhoods that have undergone demographic changes, including Bloomingdale and Truxton Circle. But McDuffie also carried several more socially moderate precincts in the northern part of the ward that observers had predicted as Hunter or Wilds strongholds.
Though McDuffie most recently worked for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) as a public safety adviser after he left the Justice Department in 2010, both the mayor and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) stayed out of the contest.
Bryan Weaver, a progressive activist who is heading up a petition drive to ban corporate contributions to city political candidates, said McDuffie’s victory represents “a new era in District politics.”
“You have younger folks coming forward, and not from anyone’s political machine,” said Weaver, a former Ward 1 advisory neighborhood commissioner. “It’s a fresh start.”
Despite receiving broad support from liberal and good-government activists, McDuffie has resisted embracing the label “progressive” amid an ongoing debate about what the term means in modern District politics.
“If people want to call me progressive, it’s up to them to do it,” said McDuffie, who will be up for reelection in 2014. “But I do like to think of myself as forward-thinking.”
In addition to McDuffie, Wilds, Magnus and Hunter, Democrats Shelly Gardner, Kathy Henderson, Drew Hubbard, Ruth E. Marshall and Rae Zapata competed in the contest. Tim Day, the accountant who first raised questions about Thomas’s theft in 2010, ran as a Republican. John C. Cheeks ran as an independent. Day finished fourth with 5 percent of the vote.
The race — which drew nearly 10,000 votes — largely centered around efforts by McDuffie and Hunter, 28, to break into District politics in the face of a strong campaign by Wilds, a 67-year-old businessman who has been involved in Ward 5 politics for decades.
McDuffie worked as letter carrier while attending the University of Maryland School of Law in the early 1990s. After graduating, he went to work in Prince George’s County, first as a law clerk and then as an assistant state’s attorney. From 2008 to 2010, he was a trial attorney for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, according to his résumé.
Despite his past service in government, McDuffie positioned himself as an outsider with the integrity to again make residents proud of their representative.
“I wanted someone young who I felt would be energetic, a family man,” said Joyce B. Dixon, 70, who voted for McDuffie in Michigan Park, in the northern part of the ward, after deciding he was “not shady.”
Hunter, a community organizer, began building a strong network of support in the ward through his self-described effort to emulate former mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s (D) passion for retail politics. He and McDuffie challenged Thomas unsuccessfully in 2010. In that campaign, Hunter struggled to clarify his opposition to same-sex marriage, which he has since dropped.
“I wanted someone who could clean up and get all the hoodlums off the streets and from in front of my house,” said Janie Brown, 68, who voted for Hunter at McKinley Technology High School in Eckington.
Hunter would have been the youngest person ever elected to the D.C. Council. Michael Clark, 26, said he voted for Hunter because he was “transparent and passionate” and “has energy.”
“There are a lot of new, younger voters in Ward 5, and we should have a representative who speaks to the things closest to us,” said Clark, a property manager who lives in Eckington.
Hunter was sidetracked during the campaign by reports that he has been sued three times since 2010 over unpaid rent and once over credit card debt.
Hunter said he got in financial trouble during his 2010 campaign but has learned from his mistake.
Still, the controversy unnerved some voters.
“I definitely don’t want Delano Hunter,” said Ilyssa Parker, who works for a nonprofit organization. “I question his integrity, and the gay-marriage thing, his finances. If you can’t do your own finances, how can you run the city’s finances?”
Wilds, the businessman and former advisory neighborhood commissioner, sought to counteract his opponents’ relative youthfulness by stressing his roots in the community and business experience.
“We go back years,” said Catherine Kelly, 81, adding that she used to cut Wilds’s hair. “I don’t know the other candidates.”
Some Wilds supporters also raised concerns that McDuffie was too connected to self-described progressive leaders from outside the ward, including Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who was the only council member to officially endorse a candidate.
Yet, even some seniors felt that it was time for a more youthful face on the council.
“I thought it was time to shift to a new generation,” said Rohulamin Quander, 68, a retired administrative law judge who walked to Burroughs Elementary School in Brookland to vote for McDuffie.
“He knows we’ll be watching,” added his wife, Carmen Torruella-Quander, 66.